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An Erlang linked-in driver that allows embedding Lua into the Erlang VM

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This is a port driver library for embedding Lua into Erlang.

It provides a simple interface that is very similar to the Lua C API and executes Lua scripts in Erlang the faster but less secure way. See below, 'Crashing the VM' and 'Comparing Erlang-Lua Packages'.

Read on to learn about using this library. For an intro to the inner workings and the Lua C API, see INTRO. And to use this package as a starting point to implement higher level and faster Lua calls, see OPTIMIZATION.

  • This is a fork of Ray Morgan's erl-lua Erlang-Lua driver.
  • This fork here goes via Darrik Mazey's fork.
  • For a real-world example of Darrik's erl-lua in action, see darrikmazey/erlmon.
  • Ray is also working on a higher level API to simplify things further for the original erl-lua.

WARNING: This is not fully tested. Still a bunch of work to be done. If you are careful, it should be pretty stable.

Doing as this library does is somewhat discouraged, unless you have good reasons for it. This library is an embedded driver port. It is safer to use a c node port, because that eliminates the danger that an error in the Lua port can crash the entire Erlang VM. See below,
Comparing Erlang-Lua Packages and Crashing the VM.


1> {ok, L} = lua:new_state().  
2> lua:dostring(L, "t = {a=1;b='test';c={a='whatever'}}").  
3> lua:gettable(L, global, "t").  


  • Quick
  • Make
  • Pathes
  • Unit Test


You will probably have to adjust pathes, but you might be lucky, just try and execute

$ make

If all worked out, see 'Unit Test', below to check health, then 'Samples'.

If it didn't, read on for the right Make and how to set pathes.


There are three Makefiles provided

  • Linux: Makefile.Linux
  • Mac/Darwin: Makefile.Darwin
  • Mac/Macports: Makefile.Macports

Calling make will call uname to decide to use Makefile.Linux or .Darwin.

  • For Linux and plain Mac build and install do

      $ make
  • For a Macports Erlang build and install do

      $ make -f Makefile.Macports

Depending on the way you built Erlang and/or Lua, you might have to do
use sudo, e.g.:

	$ sudo make


	$ sudo make -f Makefile.Macports

Very likely, you'll get errors like error: ei.h: No such file or directory, and you need to set the pathes like so:


Pathes in the make files may need to be adjusted for version numbers, and non-standard install prefixes. Do the following edits in the makefile appropriate for you:

  • Check for the erl_interface version number of your Erlang installation:

      $ ls /usr/lib/erlang/lib

or $ ls /opt/local/lib/erlang/lib

  • Put that version number in the path in the first line of your makefile. (But don't add '/lib') E.g.:

  • Find erl_driver.h and ei.h

      $ find / -name erl_driver.h
      $ find / -name ei.h
      Note that especially with Macports you may find multiple,
      identical versions.
  • Add their pathes to the second line in your make file. E.g. add to the line beginning fith CFLAGS:

      -I/usr/local/lib/erl/usr/include -I/usr/local/lib/erlang/lib/erl_interface-3.6.2/include
  • Find libei.a and liberl_interface.a

      $ find / -name libei.a
      $ find / -name liberl_interface.a
  • Make sure that's in the path in your makefile's first line, but without the trailing /lib. E.g.:


Try make again.

If you have Windows instructions, please add them and push.

Unit Test

$ erl -pa ./ebin
1> eunit:test("tests"). 

See sample/hello/lua_sample.erl for the source of these tests, it's quite illuminating.



An easy samples is in sample/hello/lua_sample.erl

cd samples/hello
erlc -I ../../include lua_sample.erl 
erl -pa ../../ebin -noinput -noshell -run lua_sample hello -s init stop 

This should give you

Hello from Lua!


erl -pa ../../ebin -noinput -noshell -run lua_sample type -s init stop 

should print

Type of 23: number

Take a look at src/lua_sample.erl to understand more about the usage of this API.


Run the samples from the shell, start the Erlang Shell with a path into ebin

$ cd <package root>
$ erl -pa ./ebin

Try this to print "Hello from Lua" from Lua:

1> {ok, L} = lua:new_state().
2> lua:getfield(L, global, "print").
3> lua:pushstring(L, "Hello from Lua!").
4> lua:call(L, 1, 0).

These are the low level function calls as exposed by the Lua C API. The last call prints this into the shell:

Hello from Lua!

Try this to execute a Lua type-to-string call:

5> lua:getfield(L, global, "type").
6> lua:pushnumber(L, 23).
7> lua:call(L, 1, 1).
8> {ok, String} = lua:tolstring(L, 1).
9> lua:remove(L, 1). % always rebalance the stack!
10> String.

This prints the type of the number 23 into the shell:


As you can see, there is quite a bit of effort required to get this information across from Lua and every function call is actually a port call from Erlang to Lua, and a message received back. If performance is of importance, implement higher order functions in C, as seen in commands.c, or try if some of the exec(..) or func(..) calls are usefully for you.

11> lua:exec(L, "print", "Hi!"). 

These functions are restricted to string parameters, exec() is for execution of functions with no return value, func() returns one string return value.

Comparing Erlang-Lua Packages

We found two approaches,

  • Cyril Romains' c node port erlua:
    "erlua is aimed to enable seamless interoperability between Erlang and the Lua programming language."
  • Ray Morgan's embedded port driver erl-lua:
    "The aim of this library is to enable a high-level embedded-lua API for use in configuration processing and extension coding for Erlang projects."

This package is based on the latter.

C Node Port

Cyril's erlua implements a more secure C Node that accepts and handles the calls for Lua in a separate node, implemented in C but behaving like an Erlang node, which cannot crash the Erlang VM when it goes down.

"From Erlang's point of view, the C node is treated like a normal Erlang node."

There seems to be be much more high-level source in erlua that helps looking at the Lua side, the Lua Stack, and Lua Variables. You can easily execute strings as Lua source and call Lua functions remotely. However, that was not what we needed.

Embedded Port Driver

Ray's erl-lua is lower level embedded port driver, which is faster but less secure.

"A port driver is a linked in driver, that is accessible as a port from an Erlang program. It is a shared library (SO in Unix, DLL in Windows), with special entry points. The Erlang runtime calls these entry points, when the driver is started and when data is sent to the port. The port driver can also send data to Erlang."

"Since a port driver is dynamically linked into the emulator process, this is the fastest way of calling C-code from Erlang. Calling functions in the port driver requires no context switches. But it is also the least safe, because a crash in the port driver brings the emulator down too."

erl-lua seemed to be lower level and mimicking the Lua C API, providing an Erlang function call for most of the functions in the basic Lua C API. That creates opportunity to corrupt the Lua 'Stack' (see Intro) and more effort and much more attention is needed to write even a simple 'hello world' call. But for being flatter it may be more robust, with less potential for errors in the C parts when extending it. Plus, we wanted to optimize for performance and cut out the intra-node communication that results into a system context switch for every call.

We are introducing a higher level in our fork of erl-lua that reduces the number of port calls and bundles functionality on the C side, programmed directly against the Lua C API, to gain further speed. For an example, see c_print() in c_src/commands.c.


It might make sense to look at NIFs if you find that you always only call a handfull or even only one Lua-implemented function from Erlang.

It looks like there is no NIF approach out there today.

"NIFs where introduced in R13B03 as an experimental feature. It is a simpler and more efficient way of calling C-code than using port drivers. NIFs are most suitable for synchronous functions like foo and bar in the example, that does some relatively short calculations without side effects and return the result."

"A NIF (Native Implemented Function) is a function that is implemented in C instead of Erlang. NIFs appear as any other functions to the callers. They belong to a module and are called like any other Erlang functions. The NIFs of a module are compiled and linked into a dynamic loadable shared library (SO in Unix, DLL in Windows). The NIF library must be loaded in runtime by the Erlang code of the module."

"Since a NIF library is dynamically linked into the emulator process, this is the fastest way of calling C-code from Erlang (alongside port drivers). Calling NIFs requires no context switches. But it is also the least safe, because a crash in a NIF will bring the emulator down too."

Crashing the VM

You can easily get the entire Erlang VM crashed, both by mistakes in
the C code of this driver, the Lua VM, Lua extensions, or by errors
you make in using this API.

Which is exactly why instead of linking drivers in, like this lib, the recommended way is a different one: using c node ports, like erlua.

A Sample

Of course, stack errors are a sure way to get you into trouble.

Here is a fast and sure way to crash the Erlang process, by a Lua stack
underrun. Run this from the Erlang shell and watch it shutting Erlang
down for good:

1> {ok, L} = lua:new_state(), lua:call(L, 1, 0).  
Segmentation fault
$ |

You can also use

erlualib$ erl -pa ./ebin ./crash_tests/ebin
1> lua_crash_fast:start().

Which runs this source:


start() ->

	{ok, L} = lua:new_state(),
	lua:call(L, 1, 0). 

To test stack overrun, here is an abridged snip from src/lua_crash_test.erl:

start() ->

    	{ok, L} = lua:new_state(),

crash_pusher(L,N,O) ->

    	lua:pushnumber(L, 42),

Which also results in a killed VM. Start the Erlang shell from the project
root directory to get something like this:

erlualib$ erl -pa ./ebin ./crash_tests/ebin
Erlang R13B01 (erts-5.7.2) [source] [smp:2:2] [rq:2] [async-threads:0] [hipe] [kernel-poll:false]

Eshell V5.7.2  (abort with ^G)
1> lua_crash_test:start().
100000 pushes.
200000 pushes.
300000 pushes.
400000 pushes.
500000 pushes.
600000 pushes.
700000 pushes.
Bus error

Again: both bugs in the C source of this driver, as well as errors
when using the API
, as demonstrated above, can kill the entire Erlang VM.

Risking this is exactly not what Erlang is about.

File        :
Description : Erlang Embedded Lua Port Driver
Authors     : Ray Morgan, Darrik Mazey, Henning Diedrich
Copyright   : (c) 2010 Eonblast Corporation for this fork
License     : MIT for this fork
Created     : 11 Apr 2009 Ray C. Morgan <@raycmorgan>
Changed     : 20 Nov 2010 H. Diedrich <>



An Erlang linked-in driver that allows embedding Lua into the Erlang VM






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